Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Abstraction and the Narrative of Combat

I’ve been researching the rules for Squad Leader via the internet, and one of the things that people often comment about SL and ASL is the way the game builds a narrative of events. As play unfolds we answer the question: what’s going to happen when these forces come into contact with each other? In the original SL the main unit of time is the 2 minute turn. This means that while there is a lot of specific information coming our way throughout the turn—there is still some level of abstraction going on. I think that open abstraction is one of the key elements to the game. We can fill in the blanks based on what happens as the turn unfolds. And in SL/ASL these will likely be terrible, terrible things (that’s what happens when you fire high velocity pieces of metal at groups of human beings).

So we get this strong narrative unfolding in the game which allows us to fill in the details as we see fit. This principle is the secret of what makes tactical games like SL/ASL so much fun. This idea of narrative is an element of many boardgames and it is largely ignored in the rules which concern themselves with resolution and determining what happens. Who wins?

Interestingly, these ideas are the primary fuel in RPGs. Building a narrative is what RPGs are all about, right? So when folks complain about the 1 minute round in AD&D as being “too abstract” I thinks they’re missing that Gary Gygax was a wargamer. He was probable very comfortable with the abstract nature of D&D combat because he saw it simple as a fun way to resolve what happened and build that narrative of combat. That means it is incumbent upon the DM and the players to make this stuff come alive. Add or subtract your level of gore to suit your group’s taste.

So next time you’re in combat: remember to make it come alive and tell the story of what happens. Be descriptive. Make it live. The dice give us information, and we have to put it back into the fiction of the game.


  1. Great post! So often I see rules that are designed to simulate actions, in an attempt to tell the whole story of what is going in combat. On the other hand, OSR style RPGs give simulate the results, but leave it to our imaginations to fill in what exactly happened.

  2. If I have not said it before your blog rules! I find the most of your post fascinating! You also have a cool track on 1970s fantasy art. I hope I get to roll dice with you one day.

    1. Thanks Eldrad! It is always nice to hear sombody's getting something out of my musings. Hopefully, I'll manage to keep posting stuff on a somewhat regular basis now.